Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Slamming Summers

Larry Summers, President of Harvard University, suffered an entirely symbolic blow to his presidency at Harvard University--he lost a split no-confidence vote among the Arts and Sciences faculty.

I previously discussed the problem here, where Summers raised several questions for academic research and debate about women's abilities in the scientific and mathematical disciplines, which one would imagine to be part of his job as the president of one of the nations oldest and most prestigious universities. But some intellectually and emotionally fragile professors were so upset by his challenge that they raised an uproar that has gained national attention. And one professor found his remarks so personally unsettling that they made her physically ill. My impression, however, was that she became more politically ill than anything else. But the flap indicated that the professors refused to investigate a situation raised by Summers, because of an inherent belief that philosophy takes a back seat to fact.

Not since the days when Galileo was before the Inquisition has learning been secondary to parochialism.

But the professors maintain that this non-binding vote had nothing to do with Summers' remarks of January. I'd be curious then to know why they bothered to have this unprecedented vote.

But perhaps Summers is getting his just desserts for two reasons--he apologized for the remarks which were a legitimate part of his duties as the president of an institution of higher learning, and in the same act proved that he had no backbone when faced with academic inertia.

Universities do not exist to perpetuate viewpoints, but rather to try them in the crucible to see which ones are valid and which ones are not. That is why just about every university expects scholarly work from each of its professors and not just the teaching of classes and grading of tests and papers. The faculty must also continue to learn in order to effectively teach. Summers' remarks, for those who bothered to actually read them, were very tentative. He drew a conclusion which he said that he hoped was wrong, and invited the faculty to research his claims in a scholarly manner to find out the real truth. And if the feminist position that many of these professors held is true, what better opportunity to validate it through careful research? But instead he apologized because he upset some noisy professors who pledge allegiance to leftist political philosophy.

I have defended Summers in this space before, but I find it hard to defend his apologies, because he is essentially apologizing to the faculty for their own immaturity, ineptitude and ignorance. By excusing these things in order to comfort the hypersensitive, he gives quarter to the academic laziness which plagues our universities.

So perhaps the professors got it right. But for the wrong reason.


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